Trust deficit, a flood of weapons & majoritarian politics – ingredients of Manipur’s dangerous cocktailtext_fields
Trust is the key word in Manipur today. And right now ‘trust’ is at an all-time low in the state.
To this, add the fact that in Manipur, both main ethnic groups, the Meitei and the Kuki-Zo people have dangerously easy access to deadly weapons.
To this, add the fact that for decades militant groups belonging to both ethnic groups, have been active in Manipur. Meitei groups are fighting Indian security forces even today, while Kuki-Zo groups have been following a Suspension of Operations, or SoO Agreement, with the Indian Army since 2008. But each side has several hundreds of trained militant cadres, well-armed and trigger-happy.
To this, add the fact that Manipur’s Meitei majority is mainly Hindu, while the Kuki-Zo people are mainly Christian. While communal friction is not at the root of the current violence in the state, many fear that if peace doesn’t return, this communal divide could be exploited by politicians and community leaders.
All these factors, when stacked up, make for a grim scenario in Manipur.
In his recent visit to Manipur, Home Minister Amit Shah, did try to walk the thin impartial line. He met both, Meitei and Kuki leaders. Traveling beyond the Meitei dominated Imphal valley, he also visited the Kuki-Zo dominated hill districts. But unfortunately, even during the HM’s visit, 3 Kuki villages were set on fire, allegedly by Meitei arsonists. This prompted observers to say that a tough message has not yet reached those taking part in violence.
Amit Shah reached out to both sides to surrender illegal arms, to reduce violence and raise trust. But he got a lukewarm response, and reportedly just 700 illegal weapons have been surrendered, whereas it’s been estimated that over 4,000 arms, including AK-47s, M16 rifles, the latest handguns, and over 5 lakh rounds of ammunition, have been looted from warehouses and armouries belonging to various security forces and reserve battalions, in recent weeks, in the valley and in the hills. A clear sign that trust levels are low, people are hoarding weapons, expecting more violence.
Observers are also asking why the Commanding Officers of these various looted armouries, are yet to face action. In fact, most of those officers have not even been suspended. Also, the replacement of Manipur’s DGP, P Doungel, who is an ethnic Kuki, has added to the distrust. If a Kuki DGP could be replaced, then why is Manipur’s Meitei Chief Minister, Biren Singh, not being held equally accountable?
As the death toll from multiple rounds of violence touches 100, it’s important to realise that Manipur is no stranger to violence. Over the decades, sporadically, apart from Meitei-Kuki violence, we have seen Meiteis take on the Nagas, the Nagas fight the Kukis, and also militant groups of all Manipuri ethnic groups have fought Indian security forces.
Even today, over issues of self-rule and autonomy, according to the central Home Ministry, eight Meitei militant groups are still fighting the Army, striking from hidden camps in Manipur’s hills and even from just within Myanmar. The most prominent of these Meitei groups are the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the United National Liberation Front (UNLF). Armed, trained, and operational, it is being alleged that elements from these groups have taken part in the violence against the Kuki-Zo people as well.
But this argument is also being flipped around. It is being alleged that while on paper around 24 Kuki-Zo militant groups have been in ceasefire mode under the 2008 SoO agreement, some of them have broken the agreement, and have stepped out of their designated camps and taken part in the recent violence, targeted Meiteis in Kuki dominated areas.
Between this pattern of accusations and counter-accusations, the one big casualty is… Trust.t the root of the problem has always been the big lack of development in Manipur. With 36.9% of its population living below the poverty line, Manipur is the poorest state in the North-East. In the areas of healthcare and education too, it lags way behind. This has forced the Meiteis and the Kukis to compete for resources, jobs, and opportunities. And sadly, that contest has now turned violent.
Unfortunately, there is a further fear – that this ethnic strife, can acquire a communal colour, simply because the Meities are mainly Hindu, while most Kuki-Zo people are Christian. Already, in some of the violence, we have seen both, Kuki churches and Meitei temples being targeted.
Fortunately, HM Amit Shah was not heard saying anything inflammatory, but just weeks before the violence, CM Biren Singh did seem to fan some communal flames when he said that the state’s BJP government was ready to implement the National Register of Citizens or NRC, to block the alleged entry of ‘illegal immigrants’ from Myanmar. The CM was clearly targeting the Kuki, Naga and Chin tribals, who have lived on both sides of the Myanmar-India border for centuries.
One can only hope that Biren Singh does not exploit this communal angle further. But as has been observed, several BJP ruled states have seen ‘Majoritarian’ politics at play. We have seen the passing of anti inter-faith marriage laws in several states. We have seen the state leaders proudly claim credit as Muslim homes have been ‘bulldozed’. We have also seen Christian congregations and churches attacked.
The fact that the Manipur Assembly has 40 of its 60 seats in the Meitei-dominated Imphal valley, is another factor. If majoritarian rhetoric works - for instance the bogus ‘fear’ that Christian Kukis are grabbing the jobs of Meitei Hindus – then the CM may imagine that he can win over the Meitei vote en masse.
Traditionally, Delhi’s approach towards critical issues in the North-East, especially Manipur, has been ostrich-like. But this time, the level of violence and hostility has reached a tipping point. It will take a lot of effort from all stakeholders - from the Home Minister, down to Kuki and Meitei politicians and community leaders, and also the less-seen but very influential militant groups – they will all have to come to the drawing table, ready to give instead of take, and re-create that most crucial element that’s needed for peace to return – Trust.